I’m exploring the comic books I find to be indispensible reading as I count down to my 100th post and today I’m shining the spotlight on Tom Waltz and Kevin Eastman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In the hands of their IDW stewards, the Turtles’ tales transcend any sort of generic genre labels and simply stand as great literature. This comic is a master class on compelling character studies and stories that are consistently as emotionally affecting as they are exciting. I’ve yet to read a single issue and not be moved!
If I’m being honest, I’m not a good enough writer to fully capture what reading Tom Waltz and Kevin Eastman’s modern incarnation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles does to me. But, since the point of these posts is to try and explain why I love these select comics so much I’m going to try. First, there is no title I read that surprises me more than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’ve been a fan of the Turtles for nearly thirty years but I am NEVER ready for where this story is going! Closing the issue with my mouth gaping in shock, restless for the next issue is the rule not the exception. Second, and more importantly, there is no title that regularly effects me more emotionally than IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I am deeply invested in the entire cast of this comic. You know when you’re drawn so completely into a novel that if the characters are in a good place when you close it, you have a happy day and if they aren’t, you’re anxious and agitated all day? Yep, that’s how I am with every issue. When they hurt, I feel it. And when they’re rejoicing, I am too. (I’ve also totally cried more than once while reading this comic.)
To illustrate these two qualities, I’m going to trace one narrative element that’s been running through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from issue #45 up through last month’s issue #64, namely the ever-growing tension between Master Splinter and Michelangelo over the direction of their family. As I’ll be bouncing around through a year and a half worth of stories certain plot points, some major some minor, will naturally be spoiled. You’ve been warned.
Starting with the unending stream of surprises in the narrative, how about issue #50?? Gah! I’m still dealing with it. Issue #50 was the conclusion to the incredibly personal “Vengeance” storyline (beginning in issue #45) as well as the jumping off point for a wildly new direction for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Oroku Saki seeks vengeance against Hamato Yoshi for his defeat and near death on Burnow Island. Yoshi seeks to end the threat of Saki permanently, after Saki killed his wife and four sons in a previous life and is once again hunting Yoshi and his sons in the present one. You can feel the tension mounting on both sides between the Shredder and Splinter. The breaking point is coming.
Looking to stop a long and drawn out war, issue #49 sees Splinter and the Turtles challenge the Shredder and his champions (Rocksteady, Bebop, Koya, and Bludgeon) in an ancient Foot Clan ritual called the Gauntlet. As they prepare, Michelangelo struggles with the impending battle.
Michelangelo – “The object of this thing is to actually kill each other?!”
Splinter – “No, my son. Only Saki or I must die today.”
Michelangelo – “Father, why in the world did you agree to this?”
Splinter – “We have spoken of this before, my son. Saki will never cease in his quest to see our family annihilated. He will hunt us to the ends of the earth if need be. Today, the inevitable has become a reality and we must all make difficult choices.”
Michelangelo – “But…I don’t think I can do it. Kill someone, I mean. Even Shredder.”
Splinter – “Then understand you will never know peace until either he…or I…no longer exists.”
This perfectly sets up the struggle to come. For Splinter, death is necessary. His vision is so limited, he can see no other option. It is the only way to find peace. Leonardo willingly follows their father and sensei. Raphael just wants a fight. Donatello is looking to do what must be done to end the evil of the Foot Clan. But Michelangelo wrestles with this. This seems childish to his family but in his heart he knows there’s nothing just about killing someone. The idea that violence and death can ever solve a problem or bring true peace is what’s known as the Myth of Redemptive Violence. The idea is fallacious and Michelangelo knows that. He is willing to fight but he will not kill.
So the emotional tension builds. Splinter seeks a fallacious and shallow “peace” through violence and death while Michelangelo feels the approach is wrong. This isn’t just a challenging and thoughtful plot for a comic book but it also places stress on the relationship between a father and his youngest son. Part of growing up is challenging your parents’ perspectives as you start to see the world on your own and create your own values. Michelangelo is exploring that here.
What Michelangelo is describing to Woody in the panel above is the Spiral of Violence. This is the idea that one act of violence leads to another, with each successive act growing in intensity. The reality of this idea is writ large on our world. We’ve never had a war that truly brings peace…yet we keep fighting them anyway! We see this presented brilliantly in the comic too. Things get a little brutal in the Gauntlet. Leonardo destroys Koya’s wings and Donatello permanently blinds Bludgeon. Sure, they are fighting for their lives but the tactics/consequences are dark and it’s a taste of things to come. Then Splinter faces off against the Shredder and in the space of a few pages, Splinter mortally wounds Shredder, they reconcile, Splinter gives Shredder a warrior’s honorable death, and then he assumes control of the Foot Clan when Karai willingly abdicates the position to him.
WHAT?? Seriously…what just happened?!? That was what I felt as I read the comic for the first time. I can’t remember ever being more shocked by a turn of events in a comic book. Splinter killed Shredder. Splinter is now Master of the Foot Clan. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are part of the Foot Clan. WTF just happened?? The last year and a half of stories have featured Splinter running the Foot and the Turtles leading the Foot Clan into battle against the various criminal elements in New York City. Never in my whole life did I ever expect to see anything like this.
I was not alone in my surprise. As shocked as I was as a reader, Michelangelo was even more shocked as he saw his father murder their enemy and assume control of the very organization they’d been fighting against. Michelangelo does the only thing he can do…he leaves. Then Splinter tells the Turtles alongside Angel and Alopex, “Now…we assume our destiny.”
But just what is their destiny? Master Splinter and Michelangelo have two very different ideas and the tension in the Turtles’ family (not to mention the separation) is heartbreaking. Soon after Splinter takes control of the Foot Clan, we see Leo, Raph, and Donnie leading a team of Foot ninjas against some organized crime bosses. Leo tells Lupo, “Your crime operations stop here. Now. Tonight. This is just a small contingent of what the Foot Clan can bring to bear against its enemies. Just imagine what an entire army of us will do if you disobey. Listen up, scumbag, and listen good. Rumors that the Foot Clan has become weak are greatly exaggerated. We are stronger than ever – watching and ready to strike at all times. So spread the word far and wide…this is our city.” Ummm…is this justified? Is this “right”?
As the Turtles struggle to define their new role, Michelangelo struggles with loneliness. We, by our very nature, are social creatures. We aren’t meant to be alone and the pain Mikey experiences resonates deeply with the reader. Ultimately, he accepts Mondo Gecko’s invitation to join the Mutanimals. And, for a short time, he finds himself a new family with this lovable team of misfits.
But soon Michelangelo learns their leader Old Hob’s been selling some of the guns they take off the street for profit…while keeping the rest in preparation for a human/mutant war he imagines is coming. Michelangelo refuses to be a part of this, as does Slash.
Hob – “The truth’s the world’s a complicated mess and sometimes it takes complicated solutions to deal with it.”
Slash – “I don’t disagree Hob – and I never intended to oversimplify the world we live in. But it seems more and more that it’s become far too easy for us to sacrifice the good in order to confront the bad.”
Art yet again imitates life in a powerful way. Slash’s words are meant to make the reader think as much as they are a challenge to Hob. The issue ends with Michelangelo (obviously) leaving the Mutanimals. He is alone again, because of his morality. This is what happens when we oppose our culture of violence. It is often a lonely road to walk…but we must marshal the strength to do so if we’re to change things. We are to try and emulate Michelangelo who stays strong and walks on, alone.
Tell me that isn’t one of the saddest things you’ve ever seen!! Michelangelo returns to their old lair to repair and clean up the place on his own…and as the isolation begins to weigh even heavier on him. Michelangelo will eventually return, after a mission to Burnow Island with his brothers, excited for what he believes is a family meeting, like old times. Rather, he finds Splinter has called a war council to figure out their approach to find Alopex, counter Kitsune and the immortals, and do battle with the Street Phantoms and their leader Darius Dun. As they plan, Michelangelo becomes frustrated.
Michelangelo – “Father, I want Alopex back just as bad as anyone here, but to help her, ’cause that’s what I really think she needs right now more than bein’ another soldier in your army.
Splinter – “Michelangelo, of course we will tend to Alopex’s trauma first.”
Michelangelo – “Why? So you can stick her right back in the war to get hurt again? Let’s be honest – the whole time we’ve been here you’ve been sayin’ things like ‘exploit’ and ‘technical assets’ and ‘advanced countermeasures’ and ‘pre-emptively,’ and it totally sucks. Whatever happened to ‘protection’ and ‘defending’ and ‘honor’…and all the other stuff you used to say against the Foot?”
Leonardo – “What’s your point Mikey? We are the Foot – why would Master Splinter speak against his own clan?”
Michelangelo – “No, Leo – you guys are the Foot. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
Leonardo – “Then why are you here?”
Michelangelo – “I’m here because you invited me…and because I thought we were havin’ a family meeting like the old days and not some stupid war council!”
Leonardo – “What’s so stupid about implementing a sound strategy? Would you rather we ignore the dangers and just let them control us? Talk about stupid.”
It was a shock when Splinter assumed the mantle of Master of the Foot Clan. Who he’s becoming is just as surprising…annnnnnd it just keeps getting worse. Donatello finds out his friend Harold (who also supplies the Turtles with a lot of their crime fighting tech) has been kidnapped by the organized crime group the Street Phantoms. But that’s not all! Splinter leaked information about Harold’s lab to the Phantoms, knowing they’d kidnap him so he could lead a Foot attack while they were preoccupied with their new hostage.
Splinter then leads the Turtles, Angle, and the Foot Clan into war against the Street Phantoms when Casey Jones – now leading the Purple Dragons – joins the fight. He tells Raph that Splinter told him to take control of the gang (once run by his criminal father) so he could have them join the Foot in their war against the Purple Dragons and other criminal factions in the city. What the hell Splinter?? He told a boy in college, who’s suffered emotional and physical abuse at his father’s hands his whole life, to take control of a violent gang to join his crusade?
Ultimately Splinter does battle with Dun (the leader of the Street Phantoms) and, in victory, tells him, “As Master, I am honor-bound to offer you the terms of surrender. We will take control of all your resources – your facilities, your financial holdings, and your technologies. Everything that was yours will now be ours. And in exchange, you will keep your life.” Dun refuses and Splinter has him killed.
Donatello – “Again…he did it again.”
Michelangelo – “I…I can’t guys. I can’t do this anymore. It’s too…insane.”
Donatello – “Mikey’s right. He’s been right all along.”
Raphael – “Yeah, this ain’t us. Not one stinkin’ bit of it.”
Leonardo – “Father? Why? We had Dun beat. The Street Phantoms, too. That should’ve been enough! Instead, you turn us into crooks…and murderers?!”
Splinter – “Victory requires the fortitude to crush our enemies and absorb their treasures in order to sustain ourselves, Leonardo. We must be strong in all things.”
Leonardo – “This isn’t strength! This is…this is wrong!”
Splinter – “No, my son. This is war. And this is how it must be.”
It’s easy to forget that the Turtles (while heroes, mutants, and ninjas) are still teenagers. They are kids, unsure of their place in the world and wrestling with a father they no longer understand or fully trust. This is part of growing up – looking for our place, questioning our parents, struggling with what to embrace and what to reject from the culture around us. Tom Waltz and Kevin Eastman illustrate this tragically and beautifully, using the Myth of Redemptive Violence as the jumping off point. The delicacy with which this nuanced tale is handled is impressive. I’ve never seen anything quite like this in a comic book.
How could I ever imagine not reading IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when the book’s narrative is so consistently thoughtful, challenging, and powerful? And it honestly gets better with each issue. In addition to being one of the most powerfully written comics on the racks right now, IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is breaking all sorts of Turtles Comic Records. The original Mirage run of the Turtles went to sixty-two issues. IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles just published issue #65, surpassing the Turtle’s inaugural run! And Archie’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures, currently the longest running Turtle title (and one of the first comics I ever collected regularly), had seventy-two issues to its credit. IDW’s run will surpass that next year, making it the longest running Turtles title EVER.
A comic this good deserves that title. As someone who’s seen all the movies, watched several incarnations of the cartoons, read many (many) different Turtle comics over the years, I can say with absolute honesty IDW has created the definitive version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in my mind. They’ve won my heart with rich characters and thoughtful stories. Thank you Tom Waltz and Kevin Eastman for daring to make the Turtles and their stories so great. Thank you IDW. And, if anyone’s looking for a New Year’s Resolution you can keep, may I suggest reading IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? You’ll be glad you did!
Happy New Year everyone! May all our thoughts of fresh starts and new beginnings have the potential to materialize as beautifully as IDW’s vision of the Turtles. Cowabunga!